This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fifteen Minutes

(April 2007)


Let’s picture a hypothetical situation.
Imagine you are a soldier of a country under attack. You did not choose to serve in the army; you were called up, impressed into service, like it or not.

Now imagine that your country is being overrun by the enemy, blown away by a storm of steel and high explosive against which none of the striving of your army or your allies has availed anything.

All right so far?

I have just been re-reading the Roads To Freedom trilogy of Jean Paul Sartre (the man in the photo, in spectacles). The three books are an account of France at peace and war, France in the late thirties and in defeat in 1940, as seen through the eyes of a small number of characters.

Of them the most important by far is Mathieu Delarue, by no means a hero, a man who conspires in the first part of the trilogy (The Age of Reason) to try and force an abortion on his pregnant girlfriend. In the second part (The Reprieve) he is just one of the many characters who hope to find a way out of going to war, in the days of Munich, September 1938, which ended with the British and French handing over Sudetenland Czechoslovakia to Germany. And in the third (and by far the best) part of the trilogy, Iron In The Soul,  war – the war from which they had got a reprieve in 1938 – comes round, in all its destruction and defeat, and confronts each individual with the choices he must make.

Mathieu Delarue – teacher of Philosophy in school, no political leanings, conscript and telephonist in a second line unit; Boris, child of émigré Russian parents, determined to die in the war so he will not have to grow old; his much older lover Lola, singer in a cabaret; Brunet, warrant officer in the French army, Marxist; these are just a few of the human characters who populate Sartre’s pages. Most of the stories are open ended. One does not know what happens to Gomez, former general in the Spanish Civil War, trying to find a job in America; his wife Sarah, trapped on the road among refugees as the Germans storm through France, as are Mathieu’s brother Jacques and his wife Odette; Boris, who decides to try and get to England rather than marry Lola and settle down to domesticity; his sister Ivich, who got herself pregnant as an act of revenge against her own family, and now hates her husband so much she hopes he will be killed; Phillippe, stepson of a French general, army deserter and potential suicide; Marcelle, Mathieu’s former girlfriend, who mysteriously vanishes after the second part of the trilogy; and her husband Daniel, closet homosexual and mental sadist, who rejoices as Paris falls to the Nazi jackboots. Sartre, deliberately, leaves these people with the choices they make.

Only two of the major characters’ stories have some kind of closure: Brunet, and Mathieu Delarue.

So. You are this conscript. You are this conscript in a unit which has never faced any combat, part of the staff of a headquarters which has fallen back constantly as the army retreats in defeat and disorder. Then, as the government falls apart, your national capital is captured by the enemy, your president sues for peace, and your unit is threatened by the advancing enemy, your officers abandon you and leave you to your own devices. What do you do then?

This is what Sartre, himself a fighter in the French Resistance (that is, a terrorist, by  the logic of Bushist rhetoric in Iraq) says happened to Mathieu. His fellow soldiers collapsed in confusion and drink, without orders, sinking into an apathy so great they did not even attempt to melt away into the countryside and try and find their way to somewhere with hope. He watched their degeneration, not being able to take part in it, and detested by them for his “aloofness”. A fellow soldier, Pinette, a clerk in the same headquarters unit, desires to have at least one crack at the enemy. Mathieu is not enthusiastic; he tells Pinette that it would be just throwing away his life for nothing. While morale totally collapses, the last remnants of a fighting unit, comprising soldiers (like the exhausted poilu with his head resting on his hands in the photo above) retreat into the village where Mathieu and his companions are stationed, and the officer in charge – a lieutenant – decides to make a last, suicidal stand there. Pinette – ignoring the pleas of his amour, a postmistress – decides to volunteer to join the lieutenant’s troops. Mathieu, trying still to dissuade him despite his own conviction that he has no right to stop him, watches as Pinette selects a rifle from a pile. And then, suddenly, he stoops down and picks one up himself.

What is the result of this choice? Mathieu could have remained with his own unit; apart from Pinette, the rest were just waiting for the Germans to arrive and had no desire to fight, preferring to drown themselves in alcohol and wait for the end of the war after which (they were sure) they would be allowed to go home to their families. Mathieu could have joined them in the building where they were confined by the lieutenant so they would not get in the way during the coming battle. He could have maintained his contempt for them, and his distance, and waited it out. Instead, he – whether on impulse or a deep-seated decision arrived at earlier and only now made conscious – picked up a gun to join in a battle whose end was foreordained and which could only result in his death.

Let me make a digression here: in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, I kept reading accounts of Iraqi soldiers who would fight desperately, sometimes charging American armoured columns with no more than AK47s and grenades. I remember the admiring comment of an American soldier: “They aren’t scared. Isn’t that something? They are not scared.” Of course the official American story was that these Iraqis were fanatical “terrorists”, leading to a caustic comment from one British commentator: “In my day this was called heroism, but then what do I know?” It was not evident then, of course, that Iraq would become a graveyard of the American imperium. Most Iraqi troops, believing that resistance was useless, had just quietly gone home (with their weapons) while the government fell apart. But even so, Iraqis who must have thought their country doomed to defeat chose to fight to certain death.

It is just as the Japanese who chose to fight till the end even as their country crumbled to defeat, individual soldiers sometimes taking on brigades and divisions; or the Germans who were still fighting on the eighth of May, 1945, after knowing that their government had already signed the capitulation. In each case, the definitive factor is the choice of the individual to go on fighting despite the knowledge (or belief) that the effort is futile in the long run (compared to the fighting of those who still think their side will win, despite their individual sacrifices, like the Soviet soldiers who held on to the last man in 1941-42).

Calling these mean and women “dead-enders” is missing the point. It comes down to a simple personal choice; what is one’s view of oneself in relation to the world? Is one of the view that one must, in order to find mental peace, sacrifice oneself to some ideal, or is it that one would rather stay alive for the sake of nation or society or personal ambition or whatever? Is death when it comes to be courted in order to bring oneself the peace of having done one’s conception of duty? For surely no duty forced Mathieu to fight. It was not his unit that was fighting; his unit had never fought and were locked up indoors to await the Germans and be taken prisoner. It was the choice of an individual. Purely personal.

To get back to Sartre’s story: Mathieu and Pinette, with three other soldiers, were stationed on top of the church tower to provide covering fire to the other troops. After the lieutenant had ordered the civilian population of the village to leave (Pinette ignoring the pleas of his girl, who just that afternoon had lost her virginity to him, to come down to her) Mathieu and his group had known that they were on the tower for good. If they came down, they would be fired on by their own side. So they sat up top and slept in turns while they waited for the Germans to turn up, the other three (combat veteran all) saying Mathieu and Pinette must be insane to join in a battle when they could have sat it out.
What of Brunet, in the meantime? Brunet had been part of a fighting unit; as all his men fell (and despite the usual impression that the French put up no fight against the invading Boches in 1940, as many as 92,000 French soldiers died fighting) he retreated till he could retreat no more. Exhausted, hungry, and unable to go farther, he stumbled into a cellar in the same village where – unknown to him – his old friend Mathieu had taken up position in the church tower to fight to the last. In the cellar he found a French civilian family which ordered him to get out because – they said – the Germans would kill them all if they found him there. Brunet ignored their bluster and went to sleep.


As dawn broke, Mathieu woke to find the Germans cautiously probing their way into the village. A pair of motorcyclists made the first reconnaissance, and they were allowed to withdraw in good order so as to tempt the Germans into the killing ground. When the German columns came in, the ambush was sprung and fighting erupted.

Up on top of the church tower, Mathieu and Pinette had been given the task of lookouts. Mathieu saw and shot dead German soldiers trying to sneak up on the other French positions:

He fired. The man gave a funny little jerk and fell on his stomach, throwing his arms forward like someone learning to swim. Mathieu found the sight amusing. He fired again, and the poor wretch took two or three strokes, dropping his grenade which rolled on the roadway without exploding. He lay quite still, inoffensive, grotesque, smashed. “I’ve put paid to him,” said Mathieu in a low voice: “I’ve cooked his goose.” He looked at the dead man, and thought: “They’re just like everyone else.”

It was in fact Mathieu, the man who joined in the battle on the impulse of a moment, who fought and fought well; Pinette, who had wanted at all costs to fight, cracked up as the fighting began and achieved nothing at all.

As the initial shooting slackened, and German corpses littered the road, Mathieu thought they were doing pretty well and had held out a long time. He was astonished when one of the other men there pointed out that just three minutes had elapsed since the motorcycles had passed.

Mathieu’s excited mood suddenly collapsed…for years he had tried, in vain, to act…his intended actions had been stolen from him. But no one had stolen this! He had pressed a trigger, and, for once, something had happened, something definite…He looked with satisfaction at his dead man…his handiwork, something to mark his passage on earth. A longing came to him to do some more killing. It was fun, it was easy.        

Shades of Cho Seung Hui there? Cho made his choices too…

Of course Mathieu’s actions achieved nothing. The Germans made their way to the other buildings, threw grenades inside, and killed all the other resisters. Even the soldiers of Mathieu’s unit, who had been kept locked up so they would be safe while waiting for the Germans to take them prisoner, were grenaded and some were killed where they were. Their decision not to fight did not save them.  

And then the Germans turned their attentions to the men in the church tower. They brought up an artillery piece and began shelling.

The gun fired two shots in rapid succession. They heard a dull shock above their heads, and a shower of plaster rained down on them from the ceiling. Chasseriau took out his watch.
“Twelve minutes.”
“Not too bad, twelve minutes,” said Chasseriau. “Not at all too bad!”

One by one, the shells begin to strike home. Chasseriau is killed.  

Mathieu, seeing him fall, felt no emotion. This was no more than the beginning of his own death.

The tower begins to fall in on them.

He was still firing when the roof fell on top of him. A beam struck him on the head. He dropped his rifle and fell. Fifteen minutes! – He thought in a fury, I’d give anything just to hold on for fifteen minutes! The butt of a rifle was jutting from a pile of splintered wood and broken tiles. He seized it….Mathieu was alone.
“Christ!” he said out loud. “No one shall say we didn’t hold on for fifteen minutes!”
He made his way to the parapet and stood there firing. This was revenge on a big scale. Each one of his shots avenged some ancient scruple…This for the books I never dared to write, this for the journeys I never made…He fired, and the tables of the Law crashed around him – Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself – bang!...Thou shalt not kill – bang!...He fired: he looked at his watch: fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. Nothing more to ask of Fate now except one half-minute…He fired. He was cleansed. He was all- powerful. He was free.
Fifteen minutes   

So, that was all a man’s life came down to – the imperative to hold on for fifteen minutes, only to prove something to oneself (because obviously Mathieu’s fifteen minutes would mean nothing to the Germans). Nothing more, nothing less. It is obviously entirely personal; the result of the decisions a man or woman makes writes out the course of his or her life.

Who can say whether he or she is wrong?

Brunet emerges from his cellar just in time to be taken prisoner and watches as the church tower, Mathieu and all, finally collapses under bombardment. He joins one of the prisoner columns as in the third of the pictures above. His motive is not survival, as such; he sees, now, that dying is not the best way to serve his cause, and among the prisoners who gladly gave themselves up, secure in the fantasy that they would be released in a month or two, he looks for other communists and for those who can be “salvaged” by being taught about ideology and communism. Mostly, he looks in vain. But till the last, as the prisoners are on a train to PoW camps in Germany, he does not give up. It’s a different sort of determination.

And who can say whether Brunet is wrong?

The other prisoners gave up in order to survive a lost war and find a new life in a post conflict world, where they would be needed to reconstruct what the war destroyed, and to go back to their families.

Who can say that they are wrong?

Sartre was an existentialist as well as a Marxist. His idea is that one makes one’s own choices and finds one’s own path in life from the choices one makes; we are all locked in the search for our own fifteen minutes.  

Somewhere I had said that one’s life and death are one’s private property, and that one ought to have the right to choose the manner of one’s death. And the manner of one’s death is one’s own business. Its meaning is most important to oneself. What others think of it is of no importance whatever, when you come down to it.

Only the individual can appreciate his or her own fifteen minutes.

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